Count Philadelphia-based chef Kevin Yanaga among the many whose plans were scuttled in the spring of 2020. At the time, he was planning an upscale omakase-style restaurant, which makes sense given he’s been earning acclaim for his sushi skills for more than a decade at restaurants like Morimoto.
“That didn’t work out,” Yanaga says.
Fortunately, a slightly different concept did. Fast forward two years, and his recently opened Izakaya by Yanaga is one of Fishtown’s newest hotspots, welcoming neighbors into bustling happy hours and groups of friends to casual, shareable dinners over drinks.
It’s a reimagining—not a cancellation—of his dream restaurant. Now, Izakaya by Yanaga is one of two restaurants that will share the same real estate. The omakase room will eventually live alongside Izakaya by Yanaga, which was inspired by the laid-back bar-restaurants he loved eating and working in when he lived in Japan.
“We want to be both a neighborhood restaurant and a culinary destination,” Yanaga says. While the omakase half of the project is not quite ready to open, Izakaya by Yanaga is now in full swing, to the delight of sushi lovers, cocktail aficionados, and Fishtown neighbors alike.
An izakaya is first and foremost a bar. “It translates as pub or tavern from Japanese,” Yanaga says and serves up the comfort food, company, and fun that people are craving more right now. You can expect exactly that at Izakaya by Yanaga.
Yanaga is a traditionalist when it comes to his cooking. “The menu is basically popular Japanese bar-style dishes, with little twists,” he says.
For those looking for snacks to pair with drinks, there are ten small plates to choose. You’ll find pork gyoza with kimchi and mustard, mushroom bao with chimichurri aioli, and a carrot-ginger dressed salad served topped with heirloom tomatoes and fried shallots.
Yanaga’s favorite menu items include the onigiri, a sticky rice ball stuffed with confit duck, and the Japanese-style fried chicken. Duck isn’t a common filling in Japan, but it’s the kind of twist Yanaga loves. And the fried chicken’s twist comes courtesy of nutmeg in the marinade. The sriracha-buffalo sauce is a non-traditional flourish as well.
There’s also several ramen variations, a few robata options, and plenty of side dishes to turn a small-plate spread into dinner. People who follow gluten free or vegan diets will have a plethora of options. Though the most spectacular sushi show will be on the omakase side when it debuts, there’s expertly sliced fish and rice at the izakaya already.
It’s here that Yanaga’s classical approach really shines. The menu is absent American-style rolls stuffed with bits of fried avocado or gobs of cream cheese and slathered in mayonnaise. “We already have plenty of that in Philadelphia,” he says. Instead, Yanaga wants to highlight superlative fish, rice cooked to an exact standard, and nori. “It’s all about how you take care of and respect the fish.”
At any izakaya, the drinks are just as important to the overall experience as the food. General manager Mike Ego created the beverage menu in close collaboration with Yanaga.
In fact, every drink on the signature cocktail list incorporates an ingredient from the kitchen to create seamless pairings for the dishes. For example, the “cultivating mass” cocktail uses duck fat-washed rye, created from the fat rendered from the duck confit that fills the aforementioned onigiri.
“Sake is a huge thing for an izakaya, and we have a lot of sakes you can’t get anywhere else in the city,” Ego says. He’s also excited about the highball machine, which supercharges the carbonation in a mix of soda and spirits. All those aggressive bubbles actually take away the harsh edge of the alcohol, he explains.
There’s plenty of wine and beer on the menu, too. Look for both Japanese and local brews in bottles and cans. He’s created a few mocktails crafted with the same care, including one with fresh blueberries and vanilla balsamic.
At Izakaya by Yanaga you’ll find a mix of industrial and rustic elements, including whitewashed brick, exposed ducts, and custom metalwork. A 25-foot marble-topped bar serves as a visual anchor. Behind it, diners can check out the selection of sake and spirits lined up on reclaimed wood shelves that glow in a moody orange light.
It’s a place built for gatherings with a flexible floor plan with tables that accommodate groups from two to 20.
For now, the omakase room remains concealed behind decorative doors. But expect an intimate, upscale space with seating for about 12. Of course, the main event will be the sushi bar, where Yanaga will take center stage.
“I love how interactive it is to work behind the sushi bar. I really thrive on that immediate feedback from guests,” he says.
Izakaya by Yanaga is open Tuesday through Thursday from 4pm to 10pm. Friday hours are 4pm to 10:30pm. Saturday hours are noon to 11pm and Sunday it’s noon to 8:45 pm. The opening of the omakase room is planned for May or June.